My Night in the Jungle (and visiting Calakmul)

My Night in the Jungle (and visiting Calakmul)

Calakmul is surrounded by a Biosphere Reserve - it. is. the. jungle. Monkeys, exotic birds, foxes, agoutis, tapirs, kincajous, bats, and even jaguars. (And let's not forget the giant spiders!) Once you get to the Reserve, it is a drive down a 60 kilometer bumpy, poorly-maintained road. Just outside of the reserve is the last place you can stay: Hotel Puerta Calakmul...

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Dreaming of Bacalar

Dreaming of Bacalar

Over our days in Bacalar, we saw storms roll over the lake, watched lightning at night, relaxed, drank and ate like kings, napped in hammocks, and without fail we saw daily rainbows, and took sunset swims. Lizards bobbed their heads at you while you used the outdoor shower, birds were everywhere, and time stood still.

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vacaciones en México, el fin

Early Thursday morning we pulled ourselves from our beds, away from our air conditioning and creature comforts, and packed back into our rented Aveo for a two hour drive back across the crazy highway so we could visit Ek’Balam. We had had our spirits dampened by the dreadful experience the day before at Chichen Itza, and were determined to see something really cool – Ek’Balam did not disappoint. The drive there was quiet, we all munched on snacks and sipped cold drinks and contemplated both the early hour and our time in Mexico, which was running short. We did perk up upon our arrival at Ek’Balam and seeing we were the first car there, aside from the employees.

While there were certainly spaces for vendors to set up, their tables were covered with sheets in the early hour and the number was drastically lower than at Chichen Itza. We meandered down a path through the woods, past one little sign, a “map” of the site.

the “map” of Ek’Balam – very helpful…

We were greeted almost immediately not by actors dressed in traditional Mayan clothes and make up, not by guides trying to price-gouge us for a tour, not by people attempting to sell knick-knacks, but by a small pack of stray dogs. Tiny in stature, with giant ears, nearly all were black, one sandy colored one lay on the ruins in the shade. The tiniest pup had a white spot on her chest. Upon greeting her she promptly fell to the ground, exposing her tiny pink belly and protruding ribs, and shook her leg in incredible delight as I gave her belly scratches. She was perfect – with her oversize ears and giant goofy feet and smile, and she became my shadow at Ek’Balam.

After meeting the strays, again so heart-breakingly familiar in Mexico, we came to the first part of the site. What you need to understand about Ek’Balam is that although it may have been documented both in the 1800s by and in the early 1900s by explorers, it was essentially lost to the jungle until excavations truly began in 1998. What has been uncovered is one of the most impressive Mayan sites on the Peninsula – a city that was most active in the late 700s and early 800s CE. (It’s astounding to contemplate such a structure so old.) The first part of the site you come to, after the doggie greeting committee, is an arched building where two “sacbes” meet. Sacbe being an ancient road. The building, with its arches, isn’t massive or imposing, but to think of people walking through those arches (which the Mayans were famous for building) over 1200 years ago is pretty exciting to a history nerd and romantic like myself.

while stepping in for a photo, a very large wasp nest was spotted

the puppy I fell in love with lounging, and us posing for a shot at the gate to the city

Once we were through the arches and over the sacbe we were entering the city. We strolled through the ball court, ever important in a Mayan city, and yet much smaller than the court at Chichen Itza. We wandered up steps of old buildings, and marveled at the giant rock piles still in the jungle around us, all hiding rubble and buildings as yet to be uncovered. There were still buildings you could enter, small rooms, carvings everywhere. And not another tourist in sight. Ek’Balam is still an active archaeological site, and it’s not fully unearthed yet, and this September archaeologists will return with the (relatively) cooler temperatures.

climbing one of “the twins” – matching buildings side by side on the property

The most striking part of the site is called The Acropolis; and it defies description, but I will try. It is 500 feet long, and 200 feet deep, which officially makes it much larger than a football field (a paltry 360 feet by 160 feet), and standing at about 100 feet high at the top of the temple it is the same height of the largest pyramid at Chichen Itza. It should have been a warning, but vultures were literally circling the massive building looming ahead of us. What makes this site particularly exciting is that much of the stucco work and most friezes at the site are still intact. There are even paintings left on the walls the site was so well preserved. When you climb the steps of the Acropolis, about halfway up you come to the entry of the tomb, a giant mouth, likely a jaguar, where the king had been entombed. Because the jungle had so thoroughly obliterated the buildings for so many centuries, this site escaped the looting and destruction from men common at other locales.

not even video would have captured the sheer size of this imposing fortress – the sides stretch far out of the frame of the photo – The Acropolis of Ek’Balam – vultures and a quetzal bird are also in the frame

The Acropolis does have thatched roofs to protect the stucco and carvings and sculptures and paintings, and surrounding the ancient tomb there are ropes – you can’t just waltz in – but you can get incredibly, excitingly close – even close enough to see the paintings on the doorways.

an example of the sorts of details that remain here centuries later

We started the march up the steps, where they have found evidence of blood letting ceremonies, to go see the tomb and the paintings and the view. It was oppressively hot, even in the early morning, with humidity you could taste. There was no escaping the constant wet feeling, the sun beating down, the sound of the vultures overhead, the incredible silence of being in the middle of the jungle, most of the animals sleeping through the searing daytime temperatures. The first 50 feet were, all things considered, a breeze – though we were thoroughly soaked with sweat by the time we reached the shady covered area of the tomb entrance.

the mouth of the tomb – see the large teeth?

some of the astounding detail that remains at Ek’Balam

a painting on the doorway – the colors still remain, one of the figures even has a blue jewel on its chest

It should be noted here, if I haven’t mentioned it before, that I am terrified of heights. I spent my first few years in the pacific northwest hunting off-trail waterfalls, often decked out in Gore-Tex, with rubberized gloves for grip, and lengths of climbing rope. I learned a lot about my limits in those years of hiking, climbing, scrambling, and occasionally dropping into ravines that seemed unapproachable to others. I learned that going up is always easier than going down, I learned to go slowly and plan my route, I learned to always pay attention to both feet and both hands, and any weight on my back (such as camera gear) so as not to lose my balance. I also learned just how far I can push myself before I panic. I once found myself on a precarious outcropping of rock, clinging to an old piece of metal, a river and waterfall raging below me. Three men had to rescue me – I became so paralyzed with fear I couldn’t let go of the metal – they had to come out to get me. I never again pushed myself – even once getting within ten feet of my destination, and forgoing that last ten feet because the assessed risk was not worth it to me or my mental fortitude.

But I was on vacation – from my real life, my sanity, far from home, and apparently I let myself get carried away. The top of the temple didn’t seem that far away, and when else was I going to have the opportunity to climb such a pristine piece of archaeological importance? When was I going to be in Mexico again, would the site still be open to people like me? Would visitors still be allowed to climb the ancient stairs (which are not ADA or OSHA compliant, I’ll tell you), would visitors still be able to get so close to the paintings they could see them? Could we still enter the rooms? I didn’t know – and I am not one to let a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to pass me by. I shook off a momentary hesitation, and started the climb to the top of the Acropolis.

happier times halfway up the temple, the jungle stretching behind us, the tomb to the right of the photo – where the trees are taller to the left? They’re growing on a mountain of rubble from another, as yet uncovered, building on the site

The climb, for the record, is grueling. The heat is awful, the steps are slick with sand and grit, they are steep, they are narrow – it is much like climbing a ladder to the third story of a building. (It appears I was wearing inappropriate footwear in the photo – but I assure you the were walking sandals, fitted very well, very snug yet comfortable, with rubber hiking soles – I wore them every day in Mexico and can’t say enough about them! I always pack sensible shoes for vacation.) We scrambled up the temple, hand over hand, foot by foot, one step at a time, without pausing to look back the way we came. We reached the penultimate level of the temple – just a few more feet and we’d have a commanding view of jungle as far as the eye could see in every direction. The last few feet were a narrow wooden walkway, with what looked like a questionable railing, and I needed a break from the climb. I was at a relatively safe spot, plenty of room to sit with my gear and catch my breath.

I turned around and sat down on a wide, deep, step, far from the edge of the staircase, and realized what I had done.

I was nearly 100 feet in the air, with nothing but a steep and dangerous stone ladder between me and my death at the bottom if I fell. There were no handrails. There were no ropes. There was no one there to rescue me – this was not an amusement park. This wasn’t even a National Park where a helicopter could come and save my ass and transport me to an emergency room if everything went wrong. This was the real world, and I was on top of it, and I was terrified. I proceeded to sink into the depths of a full blown panic attack. I quickly told my boyfriend what was happening, and to make sure I didn’t tumble down the temple becoming a modern day sacrifice. I leaned back against the stones, held on tightly, planted my feet firmly, and closed my eyes. The dizziness came, the mouth watering came, the stomach started rumbling. Star-bursts were exploding in my brain, I could see them through my clenched eyelids. I was growing lightheaded, I was gasping for breath, my heart was pounding, I was projectile sweating, it was as bad as it could get. I tried, briefly, to put my head between my knees to stave off fainting, and only scared myself more as I leaned forward, closer to tumbling.

I quickly (as I dared) leaned back again, head against a very painful rock, willing myself to melt into the rocks themselves. I kept my eye closed, I tasted the bile, I started belching. I was still sweating. And I was trying my damnedest to remember calm breathing from my years of yoga and Tai Chi. I was forcing myself to practice my inner smile. I was willing myself to breathe in calmly through my nose, and exhale all the fear, all the while reminding myself I was safe, I could take as long as I wished to climb down, I wasn’t dead yet and likely wouldn’t die unless I couldn’t get my act together. Nearly 20 minutes passed at the top of the Acropolis before I gave a weak thumbs-up to my boyfriend and our friends. They made the last ten feet to the roof of the pyramid, took some photos, met a vulture perched on the railing, and then joined me again.

After I'd given the thumbs-up, they knew I would survive, and so did I. I wasn’t going home with a photo of me on top of an archaeological site, covered in my own vomit. I had pushed myself too far, but I had won.

for scale, here’s a shot of us on the Acropolis, a red circle shows where we were sitting (roughly)

I finally had enough of my wits regathered about me to start making my way down the pyramid. I slowly bumped down the stairs, one step at a time, leaving a trail of sweat behind me on the hot rocks. Left foot, right foot, hands planted firmly behind me, bumped my ass down one step, moved my hands down another step, move the next foot, and repeat. The closer I got to the ground, the better I felt. As I was nearing the halfway mark, another family arrived, and the two kids ran up the stairs like billy goats, leaving me scared for them and slightly envious of their lack of a sense of mortality. They were truly the first people we’d seen in our two-plus hours at the site. When I was maybe 20 feet from the bottom I was finally recovered enough, and close enough to the ground, I stood up and took the stairs like an adult – or like the children who had just run past me.

my little doggie I wanted to rescue – see how sweaty and gross I am?!

I said my farewells to my favorite dog in Mexico – and still today contemplate the many ways I may try to get her here to the states and treat her like a real dog, with a dog bed and food and a safe yard and baths and flea meds…I’m seriously contemplating a fundraiser to get her home. I’m such a softy for dogs – and can’t help but feel she doesn’t have much of a chance, there in the jungle, subsisting on whatever scraps she can from tourists, and hopefully kindly archaeologists next month.

We drove back to Puerto Morelos, and returned our rental car. After packing our belongings, in anticipation of leaving the next morning, we strolled into the town for one last dinner. We sat in a restaurant with a patio on the beach. The service was excellent, and a storm was blowing in. They thought we were crazy, but even when warm, fat, raindrops started to fall on us we stayed out on the patio, watching the clouds, enjoying our cocktails and cake and other local treats.

Friday morning we all took one last stroll on our beach, piled into a cab, and made our way back to the airport for our flights home. Interesting note, the food in the airport was the most expensive meal any of us ate the whole week, even for cheap terrfible food. We brought home some unpleasant souvenirs – The Boy got sick with Montezuma’s Revenge (we suspect the ceviche he ate our last night) and spent an afternoon in the Urgent Care receiving fluids and antibiotics. He also managed to develop a nasty rash, itchy and painful, thanks to larval jellyfish. Look up “jellyfish larvae rash” on google if you dare. It’s not pretty. One friend was sick to their stomach, the other also got the rash. I came home unscathed – and we’re still not sure how as I tend to attract disasters wherever I go.

We’ve already talked about a return trip to Mexico, with definite stops in Puerto Morelos, a follow up visit to Ek’Balam, and more time in Valladolid. It’s hard to believe such magical places exist so close to home (seriously – Mexico! It’s RIGHT THERE!). We’ve been telling people all about our great time, the wonderful food, the friendly people in the towns, swimming in the cave with bats overhead, seeing amazing ruins, laughing about Titi pooping on my boyfriend. Again, I am reminded how lucky I am to live this crazy life of mine. I didn’t really need to spend a birthday in Mexico with friends and loved ones to put it in perspective, but it sure doesn’t hurt. And maybe sometime soon I’ll figure out just how to adopt a dog from an ancient Mayan city…

Puerto Morelos, part Dos

We still had more to do with a Tuesday in Mexico with a rental car! After returning the family to the resort, we took our friends from Portland and set off to find a cenote for swimming. Most of the cenotes are on private land, you follow a road sign, you bump down a barely passable jungle trail, and you find a hole in the ground. You pay a nice family some pesos, and you swim. We went to Cenote Kin Ha, got there late in the afternoon. Only one other couple was at the swimming hole, the owners were drinking and celebrating a birthday so they let us in, told us to be careful, and then disappeared to their own party. This cenote is underground – there are two ways to enter – a wooden ladder down to a platform, or a hole in the roof. The cenote is incredibly deep and stunningly clear. It’s in a limestone cave, full of stalactites, two have a hammock strung between them. There are surfboards, some other floaties, and a zip line from the platform. All the while, bats and tropical birds circle the cave. Our friends were brave enough to jump in from the hole – I skipped that particular route.

just chilling on a hammock in a cenote, no biggie

The water is incredibly clear – like looking through glass. I made my way down the ladder into the cave, and found a wooden platform with a zip line. I would be the only one to NOT use the zipline into the water, as I was wearing contact lenses and didn’t want to lose one in the pool. I scrambled down another ladder to a lower platform, sitting at the water line. Bats circled the cave, as did quetzal birds with their brilliant colors.

this is as good as you get with an iphone in a cave

For the next hour or so we laughed and played, on surfboards, the zip line, our friends jumped into the cave from the hole above. Let me be honest here for a minute – it, like other things I’ve done, was a pretty special and unique experience. It was also, like other things I’ve done, totally terrifying in the same breath. You can see stalactites reaching far below the surface, but you can’t see the bottom, which is so deep you can’t touch it without scuba diving. I’m not a great or confident swimmer, but I love the water and can swim well enough to keep my head up. I sink like a stone though, and with no effort can even lay on the bottom of a pool, and I’m aware that if I stop moving I start sinking. With that knowledge I was incredibly frightened the whole time I was in the water! I only swam from the platform to a stalactite, or from the platform to the hammock, or to a surfboard to cling to. It was incredibly unnerving to be in a hole that deep and know if I didn’t pay attention there would be no way to save my ass. I also had an irrational fear the whole time that something was going to grab me from beneath. Let’s just say I spent more time sitting on the platform with my feet in the water than actually swimming – but I’m still glad I went.

By the time we climbed topside the site was deserted, but for the family who lives there. Their children had a small spider monkey tied to a tree, and were playing with it. Now, I know in my heart of hearts, that this monkey was likely kidnapped from the jungle surrounding us, and that it was probably an unhappy monkey, tied to a tree, and that it really shouldn’t be a pet, but I also knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to have a lot of chances in my life to meet a tiny creature who could tear off my eyelids or bite through my hands without warning. I was enthralled. I approached the monkey, named Titi, and he jumped onto me and hung out. He was curious, smelled vaguely of jungle and urine, but was quite calm and happy to chill on my shoulder. I was in smitten. He next jumped to my friend Paige’s shoulder, gave her a once over, got some affection, and then he returned to his tree.

terrible posture, but an awesome moment

My other half realized he may never have an opportunity to play with a monkey again, so he reluctantly stepped to the tree to meet Titi. Titi was thrilled to have such a big, tall guy to climb on, and was totally excited, running from his hands and arms to his shoulders, scurrying from one shoulder to the other, back into his arms. Titi seemed quite taken with my boyfriend. He climbed back onto his shoulder and I went to take video of the cuteness- and The Boy said, “Titi smells bad,” and I assumed he meant like urine. Until Titi deposited a pile of soft poo on my boyfriend’s shoulder (monkeys eat a lot of fruit). I started filming, screaming with laughter, and Titi dropped another poo for the camera. The Boy was not amused, but I couldn’t stop laughing to help him. (Video is here.) The universe smiled upon me that afternoon in the jungle and gave me the finest gift a woman could ask for on her last day of being 34.

We bumped back down the road toward Puerto Morelos, knowing cold cervezas, local dinner, and showers awaited us all, and that we were going to have a long and adventurous Wednesday, my 35th birthday.

Wednesday morning I woke up a year older, and we got up early and drove the toll road across the peninsula. The toll roads are expensive – but when you pay the toll and keep your receipt in Mexico you are buying insurance to drive on that road. The toll roads are also beautifully maintained, and nearly empty, thanks to the exorbitant cost of traveling them. They’re also “safe” in comparison to some of the other roads in the country, so we were happy to hand over 600+ pesos for the privilege of driving. I don’t know much about butterflies, but there were tens of thousands of them during our two hour drive across the jungle. All pastels, yellow mostly, with blues and whites sometimes. Just thousands of them fluttering around. It was like driving through a pale yellow blizzard – incredibly beautiful and a bit sad, seeing the dead ones strewn about the highway.

We arrived at our first destination – Chichen Itza. I should have known by the hawkers tapping our windows with coupons for local restaurants. I should have seen the tour buses as a warning. The Disney-esque queue to get in, the locals dressed in Mayan war paint and head dresses, yelling to have their photo taken with you. The lack of guidebooks and maps, meaning you had to pay a guide, should have been the last red flag, but still we paid our admission fee to see one of the most famous sites in Mexico.

our first view of the pyramid at Chichen Itza Flea Market

And I will always wish I hadn’t bothered. A great archaeological site, a feat of an ancient civilization, a place I’ve always wanted to see, a place my other half studied in college textbooks, has been turned into a flea market. Truly. Thousands of people are standing around, clapping (there’s a cool echo from the top of the main temple when you clap), and the temple is behind ropes – you can’t get anywhere near or any of the ruins on site (which is a blessing as it helps preserve the site but also sad that you can’t really experience the site, either).

But all around you are hundreds upon hundreds of flea market tables, covered in tchotchkes, miniature temples, pipes carved from rock, masks, clay whistles that roar like Jaguars – and the sellers are muy aggressive. You are yelled at constantly from the moment you walk in – “cheaper in the shade!” and “ONE DOLLAR!” and “Do you speak English?” or how about, “Buy this as a present for Obama!” (that really happened) and “best prices here!” Every person is desperate to sell you a decoration, or strike a bargain with you. I was miserable.

a brief moment when there weren’t a thousand other tourists in front – they must have been shopping

I find it pretty appalling that a UNESCO World Heritage Site could be turned into a cheap carnival midway (okay, okay, the Statue of Liberty is on the list too, but still). It totally destroys the experience – it cheapens it. You aren’t there to see the ruins, you’re there to shop and buy souvenirs for your friends. I really, really hated my time there.

“I went to Chichen Itza once. It was awful.” – Grumpy Tree, at Chichen Itza

By the time we left Chichen Itza, we were all overheated, cranky, hungry, miserable, and ready for something that wasn’t so busy. Not too far away was another cenote I’d wanted to visit, Ik Kil. It would prove to be another tourist trap. You shower at the top of a flight of stone steps. There are lifeguards. There are viewing platforms carved into the walls of the cave. They’ve put in a stone floor, and a stone staircase you can jump off of into the pool. It was full of screaming children, tourists right off their buses from the resorts, and even managed to smell of chlorine. But I was determined, on my birthday, to have a moment for myself.

Ik Kil means “tourist who swims with urine” I believe

I sat on the edge of the cenote, with my feet in the greenish water. Water trickles from overhead, vines and roots hang down from the trees above. The sound of running water and the damp were calming, just like being at a waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, or Jeju-do, or Utah, or anywhere else I’ve had the pleasure of taking a moment to enjoy the water. Tiny black carp swam in circles, and the water from above created a wonderful mist in the cave. Birds were flitting about. I sat for a good five minutes, cooling off, tuning out the whoops of tourists, and just smelling the green. It would prove to be the highlight of my 35th birthday, that five minutes of sitting poolside, ignoring the world.

I snapped back to reality and the need for food and cool beverages, much to the relief of my companions. We made our way into the colonial city of Valladolid for lunch.

this is pretty much the only photo I snapped in Valladolid – el caballo con el sombrero pequeno

I wish I had cared more to photograph Valladolid – it’s incredibly beautiful and charming, with wonderful colors, great architecture, a vibrant town square. But I was so spent from our time at Chichen Itza I couldn’t be bothered to do much more than drink a cold soda in the market we picked for lunch. I picked at some fried plantains (which I typically love) but the heat had just ruined the day for me. There were no cooling ocean breezes there in the hot jungle and open spaces of the city. I vow to return some day, and actually explore the beautiful town. Just probably not in July.

After my restless and equally cranky, overheated travel companions had filled their tummies, and after we’d purchased more drinks and snacks for the road, we made our way to the last stop of the day. We had read all about Ek’Balam, another Mayan ruin, and were excited to go see it, as it was supposedly a little more subdued and less touristy than Chichen Itza. We couldn’t believe our luck as we pulled in, that it was so empty.

We walked into the gate area, and were told they’d just closed. The guidebooks that said it was open until 6 didn’t take into account the usefulness of a piece of duct tape on the sign in the entryway – with a handwritten "4:15" closing time. We used the bathrooms, debated paying someone to let us in anyway, and vowed to return early on Thursday morning, when they opened, before we had to return the rental car.

I spent the night of my 35th birthday in the air conditioned condo, I refused to even venture back into the heat and mosquitoes to get dinner with my boyfriend and our friends, instead opting to drink a beer and eat some crackers by myself while I read my birthday wishes on facebook. It wasn’t the best or the worst birthday I’ve ever had, just another day in my life I suppose. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t any less lucky to have spent it in another country with good friends and the love of my life.

I’ve decided to blog about my last days in Mexico as a third entry – as it really deserves its own post. So sometime in the next week I’ll tell you all about the time I climbed the largest Mayan temple on the peninsula.

Cómo Pasé mis Vacaciones de Verano.*

*How I Spent my Summer Vacation (Part Uno)

It wasn’t that long ago we sprang out of bed at 4am, excited not for the hour or the sunrise or the lack of sleep, but thrilled to be off to the airport for our vacation to Mexico. Friends of mine were getting married in the tiny fishing village of Puerto Morelos, and had enlisted me as their photographer. I had managed to take this opportunity and stretch it out to six nights on the Mayan Riviera, with my other half, one of my BFFs, and her significant other. On airbnb we rented a two bedroom, two bath condo on the ocean (with a pool, for good measure), with a lovely balcony overlooking the Caribbean, and a beach bar steps away, with swings to sit on and sip cold cervezas.

our view for the week

The rest of my friends were staying at a resort at the southern tip of the town. The resort was beautiful, and I did look at staying there, but we went the airbnb route for multiple reasons. One, the value couldn’t be beat. Sure, we weren’t going to get giant buffets, but we were going to get a local taste in exchange. I feel like if you stay in a resort, you may as well stay at a hotel in your own city. The resort experience only varies in which body of water you happen to be looking at. There was no way we were each going to eat $150 of food every day, and if I wanted to sit in a pool with 400 drunk white frat boys I could just go to Las Vegas for a hell of a lot less. When visiting somewhere I want to see what makes it tick, what makes it special, who the people are, I want to eat like a local, I want to be on my own schedule. I don’t want to be on a tour bus full of fellow vacationers who are all anxious until they’re safely behind the walls and barbed wire surrounding their compound-like resort. There’s something special about staying in a home, in a new town, and making your way around.

Landing in Cancun is bizarre – it’s an airstrip in the middle of a jungle. You fly in, and you see massive compounds and tiny farms dotting the landscape of flat green jungle in every direction. The control tower at the airport has a giant Corona bottle painted on it. The airport controls the taxis – it is illegal for a cabbie to pick you up at the airport, you must use special shuttles either from your hotel/resort, or you can rent a car at an inflated price, or you have to rely on their own (overpriced) shuttle service. Walking through the airport is like running a gauntlet – you are being yelled at from every direction, people offering rides, tours, snorkeling, you name it. We ignored it all and went to a counter to purchase our grossly inflated ride into the town 20 minutes away. We were further yelled at as people started asking how we would get BACK to the airport, that we should book our ride then and there. We ignored them, and got in our van for Puerto Morelos, lighter by about $80 USD for the four of us. For the record, a cab from Puerto Morelos back to the airport a week later, for the four of us, was a mere 350 pesos, or $27 in USD.

We rented a car in Puerto Morelos on a Monday afternoon, and returned it Thursday afternoon. The extra insurance is worthwhile, but no insurance they offer covers tires or windows – so do beware where you leave your car. That being said, Puerto Morelos was an indescribably beautiful, quiet, small town. Within a day or two of our arrival people were recognizing us and learning our names. It had its share of people selling snorkeling tours or offering to take you out on a boat, or trying to sell you a shirt, but every person we dealt with was polite and friendly and helpful and we never felt uneasy.

swinging at the bar at Unico Beach

our first dinner in Puerto Morelos, with appearance by the chef

Our first night in town we drank beers at the beach bar, until we were chased back to our condo by the mosquitoes. We sprayed ourselves with lethal doses of deet and walked down the little street into the town. We ate at one of the first places we came to, El Pirata. The man in the corner with his keyboard and guitar was covering hits (heavily accented), including a strangely charming mariachi sort of cover of The KKK Took my Baby Away. (Oh, how I wish I’d gotten video!) We sat on a table on the sidewalk, in the incredible heat and humidity. Stray dogs wandered by for pets, a small black kitten also came by and befriended me. I have terrible food allergies, peppers and avocados are big no-nos as is anything from the ocean. But I ate chips, drank cold Sol beer, and toasted to vacation with my friends. The chef and owner even photobombed our group photo (he, the waiter, and our musician were all tipped well). The plates of guacamole had to have weighed several pounds each, and I safely munched on cheese tostadas quite happily. All caution was thrown to the wind that night – we all broke the rules and ate local fruits, veggies, and other things that hadn’t been “cooked” or “fried.” And on Sunday we woke up, like nothing had happened.

the silver earrings I had to have

We strolled on the beach, we played in the pool. We shopped in the town. We arranged to pick up our rental car on Monday (substantially cheaper than at the airport). I splurged on a beautiful pair of Mexican silver earrings, a whopping $30USD, at one of the shops in town. It was as lazy a vacation day as you could imagine. We drank cold beers and snacked at a local bar, La Sirena, where the staff hung out and chatted us up, we had some of the best macaroni and cheese in the northern hemisphere (seriously, and strangely true), and then we walked to the pier a block away. The famous tilted, broken lighthouse of the town leaned towards the ocean, the water was impossibly electric green and blue and clear to the bottom. We saw tropical fish swimming around the pilings, and even a giant manta ray fluttering around the bottom. Late that night we saw the town come to life as children and dogs filled the town square to play soccer and adults sat around chatting, a food cart set up with hot nuts and churros.

the famous lighthouse and pier of Puerto Morelos

A day of lounging, mentally prepping for the wedding on Monday, relaxing, shopping, and eating made it feel well and truly like a wonderful vacation. We didn’t have to be anywhere, or do anything, at any certain time. Another benefit of staying on our own schedule – we quite simply didn’t even have a schedule. We filled our fridge with dozens and dozens of Sols, and some oddball canned liquors, and relaxed in the A/C. Actual monkeys lobbed immature mangoes from overhead onto the pathway of our condo, and stray cats found us again for attention and food.

Lunch at Tuch Tlan – we didn’t eat the cat, but we ate the hell out of the panuchos cochinitas

Monday morning rolled around and found us again in the ocean, before getting cleaned up for lunch. We went to a local hole in the wall. At the other end of town, in a three sided building with a tin roof and a comical handwritten sign, “NO SOMOS MCDONALDS,” we sat in plastic chairs in the oppressive heat and ordered cold refrescos. One wall was lined with poster boards, with handwritten menu items. When the restaurant ran out of sodas, they sent a kiddo down the street with a pocket full of change to buy us more. The owners’ cat lounged on the tile floor, ignoring everyone, and hoping for the heat of the day to go away. The four of us ate like kings – several tostadas, empanadas, and panuchos cochinitas each, plus various salsas and guac, and with our cold sodas and mountains of food it came to $17. Total. Not each, $17USD total. It would become our favorite spot in Puerto Morelos!

the gorgeous bride snapped this selfie as I helped with her dress – I look deranged

My other half and I picked up the rental car, freshened up in the A/C, and made our way through the town to the resort where my friends were getting married that evening. The resort was surrounded by mangroves and swamp, complete with signs warning of crocodiles (which were actually spotted by several guests), and of course the requisite high walls and barbed wire. He went one way with the groom and his groomsmen, and I went with the bride and her girls to photograph the craziness.

summer wedding, Mexico

how cute IS she?! I could hardly stand it!

I’ve known the bride’s sister in law since we were in 7th grade, and over the years have gotten to know the bride and her other bridesmaid from hanging out in San Diego with them annually. It was fun to be with people I knew, in a beautiful place, and I was excited to meet my girlfriend’s 8 month old baby for the first time, too. The wedding was wonderful, casual, funny, intimate – all the things you want from a wedding, really. We laughed, we cried, we drank, we ran on the beach, we danced, the bride drank tequila from the bottle at the reception.

don’t you wish this were you?!

As I’ve grown older, as I’ve attended hundreds of weddings, I’ve learned a lot about these events. Mostly I recognize stability and love and trust when I see it. Not perfection, not fairytale, but true relationships – I can see them. I think we all can, really. And when a couple works, it’s incredibly fulfilling to spend their wedding day with them. I get choked up remembering it, actually. Partly because I’m a sap, partly because my photos of their day will be passed down through their families, partly because being around that much love and trust and respect feels good. It’s amazing to celebrate the happiness and love in the world. It makes me fall in love with love all over again, every time it happens. These aren’t people who have had a wedding because they wanted a kick ass party – these are people who fell in love, grew a wonderful relationship from nothing, married each other, and their party kicked ass because they included everyone who had helped them get to this point in their lives. Their wedding was amazing because of them – and it would have been amazing even if the Caribbean hadn’t been crashing on the white beach outside. (But damn if it didn’t help…)

I love love.

But the fun was just starting – my friends who got married are awesome. They’re the sort of people who on a whim bought, and learned to ride, motorcycles – and now take drives along the west coast. They are the sort to go swimming with whale sharks. They met during a real honest to god dance off – they’re incredibly fun, bubbly, hilarious, outgoing, friendly people, and we knew the wedding was going to be a mad blur. We knew that it was going to be hard to corral family and friends for photos and get the party started. We knew we needed time to take portraits. We got in plenty the night of the wedding, when her hair was beautiful, her eyes stunning with eyeliner and mascara, the jewelry, the everything. But we saved the best for early Tuesday morning, after the wedding. We picked up the bride and groom, drove them to our condo. I put her back in her dress, and off we went. To the pool, to the beach. We visited the lighthouse, and to finish the adventure, they jumped into the ocean off the pier, then swam into shore. These are the people photographers fall over to photograph – beautiful, fun, adventurous, easygoing, and madly in love.

poolside and happy

Love on the Mayan Riviera, Puerto Morelos, Mexico

sassy wedding, Puerto Morelos, Mexico

the fisherman thought we were nuts

taking the plunge – literally

But our day didn’t stop with a sopping wet bride in a wedding dress in our backseat, no. When we dropped the bride and groom off at the resort, we swapped them for a backseat full of our other friends and their baby. Four adults and a baby, FYI, cause some serious bottoming out in the Mexican rental version of the Aveo. While I was at their wedding last year, the four of us hadn’t all been together since my trip to San Diego with my “new boyfriend” shortly after we started dating. We spent the next couple of hours playing in the ocean with the baby, relaxing in the A/C, and then we all went back to the little restaurant for another sweltering yet fantastic meal. I have known this woman since the early 90s, and playing with her baby is surreal. We are now the age her mom was when we met – I look at her and I see her mom, I look at her and see our 20+ years of friendship, I have so many memories and connections with her – I was with her on her wedding day, and now I was holding her little boy on my lap. She made a tiny human. Even better, the man she is sharing this adventure with is fantastic – I cannot imagine her with anyone else.

this photo was 20 years in the making

we’ve come a long way since school lunches in NH

I don’t know if over one of our hundreds of sleepovers in the last two decades we could have ever predicted the random places our lives would lead us, or that we’d see each other more often in the last few years on the left coast (and now Mexico!) than we did the previous ten while in New England. I don’t know that we could have imagined the men we’d fall in love with, the new friends we’d surround ourselves with while still keeping each other around, but I am incredibly lucky to have had some time on the beach with her, her fantastic husband, and their perfect baby, with my other half snorkeling around and entertaining the baby with things he found in the ocean (like a live conch). My life is incredibly wonderful, thanks to my friends and loved ones.

But that’s just a taste of my “summer vacation” in Mexico – I still have to tell you about my 35th birthday at a Mayan temple, the best incident of monkey poop in history, swimming in a cave full of bats, and sitting on the beach eating dinner while a warm rain fell. More in my next post about Mexico.